College Staff Do Important, Meaningful Work

Lost in the most recent asinine Oklahoma spectacle over undocumented students was part of an ultra-conservative legislative group’s proposal that would cut non-instructional jobs at the state’s universities and colleges in an effort to save $328 million.

State Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow), who seemed to indicate he was speaking for the group, didn’t note how many “non-essential, non-instructional” employees all that money would add up to, but I think it’s safe to say hundreds if not thousands of people would lose their jobs under the proposal.

It’s a terrible proposal that, if enacted, would seriously devastate college and universities and harm the lives of those people who lose their jobs as well as students, but it was overshadowed in the media by Ritze’s proposal that the state could save $60 million by identifying non-documented students in public schools and turning them over to federal authorities to have them deported.

Other members of the group, Republican Reform Caucus, disavowed Ritze’s deportation proposal, which is unconstitutional and, well, just basically cruel and abusive, but by then Oklahoma had to endure another national media spectacle as news outlets from throughout the country reported the news.

Even in the Trump era there are plenty enough people who think the idea of deporting children and denying them an education is appalling. Even in Oklahoma, the idea was greeted by at least some leading Republicans—Gov. Mary Fallin, for example—as a non-starter. Ritze, who started the entire Ten Commandments monument controversy at the Capitol a while back, has been part of an Okie spectacle before so this is nothing new to him.

So we maybe could have just moved on from the media fiasco after that, as we always do, except for the proposal to cut $328 million from higher education. As you might recall, the legislature and Fallin cut funding to higher education by 16 percent last fiscal year. Although it’s unlikely the group’s proposal to cut that many higher education employees will survive intact, I do think it’s an indication that college and universities can expect another major cut.

The state is facing a $878 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year, but the larger issue is Oklahoma faces a huge budget structural problem, which short-term fixes through cuts or minor revenue increases can’t solve.

I think a case in point of the structural problem would be this proposal to cut hundreds of college and university staffers, who support instructional staff. College staff, from IT specialists to advisors to administrators, do important, meaningful work. What would happen under this doomsday scenario is that instructors would then have to assume much of the staff work, taking their attention away from the classroom and research.That, in turn, would harm students, who pay tuition to attend college.

My point is that the state leaders can’t just lay off hundreds of state workers in higher education and expect there to be no impact on the quality of education or the number of college graduates in the state. Oklahoma, as we all know, lags behind the national average in college graduates. This proposal, or any proposal that significantly cuts higher education, is not feasible for the basic sustainability of our colleges and universities.

More importantly, what would happen next year when there’s nothing left to cut?

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